Who would be a ref?

by Ian Desmond

Yet another weekend has passed in which referees took centre stage in the English Premier League. Media attention has focused on Mark Clattenburg and his alleged ‘inappropriate language’ when dealing with Juan Mata and John Obi Mikel.

Before we jump to conclusions and string Clattenburg up, we must wait for the cogs of the FA and the Met to slowly turn and churn out the results of their investigations into the events at Stamford Bridge. For the moment it is worth putting down our pitchforks and remembering that the officials have an unenviable job of which the highest measure of praise is being ignored.

Referees and their assistants are routinely pilloried in the press, used as scapegoats by managers and the subjects of verbal abuse by stadiums full of fans and by players. The latter is where it is most frequent and obvious.

Rugby fans often take a crooked look down their broken noses at football and the fans of the sport. The usual touchstones of snootiness are the treatment of referees and good manners of the players. While this attitude is as old as the ‘gentleman’s game played by thugs’ cliché, there is something to be said for it.

Respect is instilled in rugby players at a young age and policed through to the elite level. The behaviour of fans and pundits is an extension of that which is seen on the field. To be part of the culture of rugby the deference shown by players to referees is mirrored off the field. A go-to argument against change in football is that it will sanitise the game. Yet this is demonstrably not the case with rugby where empowered referees use their discretion in what is a no less passionate game.

Football fans and pundits alike are quick to vilify referees rather more than their rugby counterparts. The lack of respect shown officials on the field permeates into the greater culture of football. Players on the pitch, fans in the stands, managers speaking to the press and pundits in the media rush to football’s safe harbour of blaming the referee. It’s as easy as it is lazy. This is an ongoing problem that needs more than a t-shirt based lip service campaign to address it effectively.

The first and perhaps easiest step is to actually enforce FIFA’s laws of the game by punishing ‘dissent by word or action’ or ‘using offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or gestures.’ Were this to be enforced there isn’t a team that would finish a match with eleven players. Change in attitude and behaviour would soon follow.

Much in the same way the police issue notices that they intend to crack down on certain behaviour so should the PFA and then actually follow through. This may go some way towards a positive shift in culture. However it’s important to make sure this is enforced, again from grassroots to the elite level.

All sides, on and off the field, have abdicated responsibility for dealing with the abuse of referees. Fostering cultural change is a slow process and cannot be done with a press release or a simple slogan.

The alleged Clattenburg incident may well see an end to his career as a referee. If he is guilty his role as referee would be untenable; a four-game ban would not suffice. Regardless, no person should be subject to the kind of abuse that referees receive routinely within football and whatever the outcome it may be a welcome catalyst to meaningful change within this culture.

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